Orthodoxy and the Left

Karl Marx' grave

A few days ago I wrote about how the SWP’s leadership, who endlessly go on about the need to ‘defend the IS tradition’, have over the years coarsened and stultified the organisation’s politics and practice to the point that they are now the antithesis of those of the tradition they claim to uphold. This set me thinking about the whole problem of orthodoxy for socialists. One one hand, marxists usually claim that they are rigorous and scientific in their unblinking analysis of capitalism – but on the other are extraordinarily prone to resorting to poring through the Sacred Texts of Marx and whichever of his later disciples they find most congenial (and useful) in order to find self serving quotes to give the imprimatur of orthodoxy to justify whatever it is they want to do. Too many ‘theorists’ of the far left sects are as obsessed with hermeneutics as much as the most narrow Talmudic   scholar or the Biblical students of the schools of Alexandria and Antioch.

But some – a few – Marxists have always challenged this tendency to cleave to a comforting orthodoxy rather than attempt to continuously seek to apply the marxist method rather than long established formulae derived from once relevant analysis. They have welcomed the charge of heterodoxy.

the modern world

One such was the American socialist and autodidact Harry Braverman, author of the classic Labor and Monopoly Capitalism. In 1958, in the essay, Marx in the Modern World he wrote:

…the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilised itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon. He thought the social wars that would usher in socialism would take place under the social conditions he saw around him. In that sense, the economic obsolescence we can easily find in him today is of a piece with his errors of political foreshortening.

Now we live in a day and age where socialism, while clearly on the order of the historical day, will shape up under conditions far different from those under which the socialist movement was originally given its stamp.

Every movement develops its own style, rhetoric, way of making itself heard. Socialism was cradled in the intolerable conditions of the primitive working class, and flamed with the barricades spirit of the revolutions of 1848 into which it was launched at its infancy. Instead of evolving with changed conditions, this tone and approach survived in frozen rigidity which sometimes even outbid Marx. One of the main reasons was that the first of the long-awaited revolutions broke out in a country whose condition was more appropriate to the Europe of the early nineteenth century than the early twentieth, and whose social struggles reflected that fact. Then, to compound the difficulty, that revolution got ossified and bureaucratized at the top, and insisted on imposing its every prejudice and dogma on the world socialist movement. The result was a Communist formation, the recognized repository of ‘Marxism,’ with a Zeitgeist from another century and a paralyzed mentality. Is it any wonder that the work of digging out Marxism and restoring it to usable form is so difficult?

If the thought is right that the trouble lies not in original error but uncorrected obsolescence, then the job is not to see where ‘Marx was wrong’ so much as to make a fresh application of his theory to the world around us as it is, not as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the field of physics, we need socialist Faradays and Maxwells or if we are lucky, Einsteins and Plancks, not people who confine themselves to knocking Isaac Newton.

Isaac Newton outside the British Library

Over 50 years later,this time in Britain, another self educated working class intellectual, Jim Higgins wrote:

For the revolution, we may well need a revolutionary party, but that party will certainly have to be of an even newer kind. The Leninist model did well enough in 1917 but, in the 80-plus years since, it has not marked up any successes; indeed, the Stalinist variant used its command structure to ensure that there were no successes. A socialist organisation finds its justification in the fact that it provides the geographical spread, the publishing resources and a forum in which to discuss and learn from workers; within such a relationship there is a mutual growth and understanding. It is in this too that the possibility of developing transitional programmes can arise; the more successfully this policy is pursued the more the organisation grows in time with developing class awareness and struggle.

In so far as such organic growth takes place, so will the new reality clarify all but the most heavily fortified of closed minds. This is not the realisation of that other Trotskyist unity fantasy, where our membership figures prove to all the other groups that we were right all the time and that the rest had best line up behind the new Lenin. Not at all – this is a movement for the self-emancipation of the working class in which socialists can play a constructive part, not acting the fool as some kind of entrist with a secret agenda for the greater glory of an antediluvian sect…

The world has moved on and, no matter how much we might like make-believe swashbuckling in a historical drama, it merely confirms our irrelevance in the same way that the chaps who hurtle about firing muskets in re-enactments of Civil War battles achieve nothing except looking like prats. The communist tradition has, over the decades, acquired such an accretion of dross that its founders would be hard pressed to recognise it as their creation, and where they reject the child, we should be most careful not to adopt the bastard.

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